According to the Accidental Deaths & Suicides in India (ADSI) Report of 2021 released by the National Crime Records Bureau, students accounted for 8% of the total suicides in India in 2021. That is, 13,089 students chose death over life in 2021 alone. This is indeed an alarming rate, and not long before another student suicide was reported in Kerala.
In light of the recent suicide of Sradha Satheesh and serious allegations raised against private higher educational institutions in Kerala, a question was put up on our Instagram handle seeking responses from the student community, and we heard the experiences of many. What became abundantly clear from those responses is that domination and harassment on the part of management is not something limited to a particular college but is of a much larger scale. This article deals with some of the common issues identified in this regard.
Private educational institutions in Kerala – A Saviour?
Higher education marks a remarkable phase in an individual’s life wherein they choose to channel their career in a particular direction and slowly embark on adulthood. It should ideally be a nourishing period that allows students to unveil their potential and discover their passions. Most importantly, they should be free to make choices and mistakes. However, considering the affinity for high-paying ‘respectable’ jobs, societal status, and vanity prevalent in Keralite society, their parents often force students to opt for courses against their preferences at institutions that guarantee placement and a ‘safe future.’
Nearly every family desires to produce at least one son or daughter with a ‘respectable’ job (including doctors, engineers, and more), creating immense demand for the concerned courses. However, the demand does not tally with the seats available in government colleges and prestigious institutions. The solution to this imbalance and fulfillment of their dreams mostly lies in securing a seat at privately owned institutions. This prepares the ground for manipulation, and the notion that the students are at the mercy of the management is established at the onset itself.
Strictness and Discipline
One major factor facilitating this manipulation is Malayali parents’ obsession with discipline and strictness. This is also a tagline that many private institutions use to market and promote themselves. Controlling and suppressing students and creating a school-like environment in colleges are considered necessary prerequisites for ‘molding’ students into ‘better’ individuals and preventing them from going haywire. This motive of imposing discipline on students is clearly discernible in measures like introducing uniforms, compulsory attendance, prohibiting the use of mobile phones inside the campus, insisting on a clean shave look and certain types of hair cut, etc., in higher educational institutions. But how can we expect students to perform well under immense pressure coupled with harassment and unnecessary restrictions on anything and everything? Does that in any way contribute to their becoming better adults?
Adulthood and Personal Space
It is important to emphasize how students in many educational institutions in Kerala are not treated as adults. For this, let us look at the idea of adulthood from two perspectives – legal and social.
Adhering to the legal definition, the Indian Majority Act of 1875 declares the age of majority for all persons in India to be 18 years. (The age of majority is “a legal age where the individual is considered mature enough to make correct decisions ranging from entering into a contract, getting married, getting drinks in clubs and even a right to select the government.” via GETLEGAL INDIA ) However, far from making significant perhaps life-altering decisions, the students who have completed the age of majority are not even allowed to exercise their fundamental rights.
Let’s now look at adulthood as a social construct theorized by social scientists. Here the idea of an adult is determined by context, ethnicity, gender, race, and social class, among other key identity markers. For example, while our parents were considered adults during their early 20s, we were not treated the same way. The criteria to be considered an adult remains social and subjective.
Considering the present context, the problem lies in that students are not only not treated as adults but are also subjected to unnecessary restrictions imposed on every aspect of their life, extending to their personal space. The confiscation of students’ mobile phones when entering the campus is one most common and serious examples of this intrusion into personal space. In worst cases, students are often forced to display their phone’s call log, personal chats, and photo albums before the college authority, which is then used to harass them. This is a crucial case of breach of privacy.
Despite their hefty educational qualifications, the faculty members seem to lack basic understanding regarding the clear demarcation between students’ life at the institution and their personal life. So, where are we going wrong?
Every teaching model considers imparting values to students as a significant outcome of teaching, but how can we expect faculty members who do not even understand or respect personal boundaries to impart values to students? Furthermore, any disagreement or resistance on the part of students is often met with severe punishment measures, including suspension, mental torture, and blackmailing. This unwittingly creates an environment in which blindly following instructions is set as default and encouraged as a virtue among students.
In this context, it would not be wrong to say that institutions often turn into mere manufacturing units that produce employees. It kills their spirit and gradually normalizes turning a blind eye toward injustices.
Moral policing on campuses is another common practice wherein personal boundaries and choices of students are completely disregarded. Male and female students sitting together is one of the common causes for raised eyebrows of management, faculty members, watchmen, and other staff. Malayalis’ or rather Indians’ tendency to sexualize and attribute a romantic outlook to any interaction between opposite sexes is clearly discernible here.
Let’s put it this way – even if students have romantic or sexual interests for each other, who or what gives these institutions the right to interfere in their personal life? To put it bluntly, who the hell are these people to make personal decisions for students?
Academic Excellence & the Race for Rankings
The undue emphasis on academic excellence is another factor contributing to mental harassment. Irrespective of their IQ levels and learning capabilities, students are forced to cater to the institution’s reputation with exceptional results. Not to mention, the passions and interests of students are completely disregarded in this race for results. It might sound hard, but we live in a society that judges you based on your scorecard. No matter what you’re or what you have achieved outside academics if you don’t have good marks, you’re not enough.
By attaching so much importance to scores, we’re setting a standard where nothing less than a high score is acceptable. Accordingly, students who fail to secure ‘good’ marks are subjected to humiliation and insults from the authorities. They are often branded as ‘good for nothing.’ So, the next time you see an institution flexing its meritorious results, think of the students and the immense torture they might have endured to secure the results. The question here should be, is education just about academic excellence? Or, more specifically, what is the purpose of education?
This over-insistence of academic excellence and discipline could be traced to the management’s intention of earning a reputation for their institutions. One way to do this is by securing higher grades and ranks per NAAC and NIRF rankings. Students from acclaimed educational institutions in Kerala have emphasized the facade and pretense that precede NAAC’s visit to their colleges. This ranges from setting up ‘temporary’ gardens to installing basic facilities. Here the objective is to create the illusion of a nurturing learning environment before the inspecting team. However, the illusion leaves the campus with the NAAC team, and everything returns to its deplorable state. So, how reliable are these rankings?
Hostel, a Second ‘Prison’
College hostels and their unreasonable restrictions form the next category. This ranges from not allowing two students of the same sex to lie on the same bed to forced prayer sessions. Moral policing in hostels, particularly girls’ hostels, is another major concern in this regard. This includes separate curfews for girls’ hostels, confiscation of mobile phones, slutshaming, etc. Not only are these discriminatory on the grounds of gender, but they also interfere with the inmates’ basic rights. Let’s have a look at two important observations by the Kerala High Court concerning gender-based discrimination in hostels.
Upon hearing the case filed by five MBBS students from Kozhikode Medical College challenging the discriminatory hostel curfew for female students in December 2022, the Kerala High Court stated that discriminatory restrictions could not be imposed on girls. The court also observed that “such restrictions under the guise of protection is nothing but patriarchy”.
In another significant verdict, the Kerala High Court struck down the hostel rules enacted by an aided college under Calicut University that prevented the inmates of girls’ hostel from using mobile phones between 10 pm and 6 am. The court observed that when the Human Rights Council of the United Nations has found that the right to access the internet is a fundamental freedom and a tool to ensure the right to education, a rule or instruction which impairs the said right of the students cannot be permitted to stand in the eye of law.
The court has clearly stated that no gender-based discrimination shall be entertained and observed the unreasonable nature of the restrictions regarding the use of mobile phones.
The Need for Student Representation
The aversive attitude maintained by private institutions towards student representation has to be talked about. In the absence of an accountable student body, the power is exercised solely by the management, and it assumes an authoritarian role. This concentration of power enables them to introduce any rule without consulting students. In such cases, there is neither accountability on the part of the management nor do students have a platform to raise their concerns or question any unnecessary restriction. On the contrary, a democratically elected student body can ensure a balance of power, check any possible misuse of it, voice the needs of students, resist injustices, and stand for the welfare of students. Therefore, the presence or absence of student representation determines the distance from democratic governance to authoritarian rule.
Mental Health Matters
Academic pressure coupled with a suffocating prison-like environment can most possibly harm students’ mental health. However, mental health is also an area in which people lack awareness or are often conveniently neglected. It has been observed that students who suffer from mental health conditions have an increased risk for suicidal behavior and self-injury. It is, therefore, most important to pay attention to the mental well-being of students. One way of doing this is by making efficient mental health counseling and assistance available on campus. It must be emphasized here that this must not become another way of harassing students. Further, suicide prevention education should be imparted into the system. Additionally, institutions may include post-suicide protocols to support students when a college community member has died by suicide. This is particularly important as suicide has a ripple effect on the lives of their dear ones.
A Word to the Reader
It is important to mention here that this article is not exhaustive because it does not deal with all the issues faced by the student community in private colleges. It is rather a representation of some of the major and common issues identified. Many other concerns need to be explored, which point to the situation’s gravity. Moreover, many of the aforementioned issues are not limited to private colleges but extend to government colleges, entrance coaching centers, and schools. So, the inference is that the education system from the grassroots is deteriorating, with several grave issues requiring immediate attention and speedy redressal.